How does that old song go? "Your bags are packed and you're ready to go. Your dog is sleeping outside the door. You hate to wake him up to say good bye."
There are always a million little details when you're getting ready for a trip. One important detail is to leave your pet sitter a list of "what to do" if the pet gets sick. In other words, animal caretakers need all of the same information (and more) that you would leave with the kids' babysitter.
For legal reasons, when a neighbor or caretaker brings in a pet for someone else, a veterinarian cannot provide any services other than basic first aid or emergency medicine. This is because an owner has the right to refuse specific tests or treatments -- whether or not the veterinarian insists that they are critically important. (There may be animal cruelty issues associated with refusing treatment, but that's a different discussion.) Without knowing what the owner wants to do (or not do) for the pet, it is impossible for the neighbor to "authorize" treatment or the veterinarian to provide it.
Of course, owners should leave all of their contact information for the pet sitter. However, I find that many owners are unreachable (even when they are expecting a call) about 30 percent of the time. If you are traveling, don't rely on your cell phone as the only "plan" for addressing your pet's immediate health needs.
I encourage owners to leave a "permission slip" for their neighbor or animal caretaker. Key pieces of information include 1) the caretaker's name, 2) the pets' names, 3) a dollar amount for treatment, and 4) your phone number and signature at the bottom.
Here's an example letter: "Dear Happy Tails Veterinary Hospital, I authorize Jane PetLover to make medical decisions for my animals Sparky, Fido and Fang, while I am away from Sept. 15 -- 21. In the event that I cannot be reached at the following phone numbers, I authorize up to $500 of treatment and/or tests for my pets, should the need arise. If the problem appears to be serious enough to exceed $500 for Sparky, who is very old, then I authorize the doctors at your hospital to make the best decisions for Sparky, which may include putting him to sleep. I will assume full responsibility for the payment and/or reimbursement for any and all veterinary services. Signed, Joe Owner."
Of course, even this permission slip doesn't cover all of the possibilities. An established relationship with a veterinarian will help when your pet's problem is in the gray area. If your veterinarian knows you and your pets, then the doctor will be able to make educated choices on the level of care to provide based on your past decisions. Veterinarians still want and need permission to treat your pet, but we are much more comfortable making decisions when we've gotten to know you and your furry friends.
Jon Klingborg is a Merced veterinarian associated with Valley Animal Hospital. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org